As a regular customer of Cathy’s Breads, a Hays microbakery, Nancy Cook knows her family’s favorite.
“Orchard bread is a weekly must,” said Cook, who attended a workshop on breadmaking Thursday evening at the Hays Public Library.
About 30 people filled the room for the two-hour workshop taught by Cathy Drabkin, owner and founder of Cathy’s Breads.
“My mother used to make cinnamon rolls,” said Cook, describing some of her fascination with breadmaking. Sampling a slice of Drabkin’s bread after the class, Cook tried to explain what’s special about the homemade bread that Drabkin sells from her home bakery at 1509 Elm.
“It’s hard to put into … ” she started. “There’s so much flavor, there’s a freshness that you can’t get in the store. It’s a treat to have a specialty item like this in our neighborhood.”
Richard Packauskas, an entomology professor in the Biology Department at Fort Hays State University, attended in hopes he could get some tips.
“I took a sabbatical a year ago and told everyone I was going to learn to make rye bread,” Packauskas said. Instead his time was taken up with making garden boxes and installing soaker hoses, and he ended up buying Lithuanian rye bread off Amazon.
“I think for a good one you’ve got to do a sourdough starter,” Packauskas commented before the class began. “I like light and dark. Dark rye comes from Lithuania.”
Drabkin explained to the crowd that she’d be showing them how to make a basic artisan bread dough that anyone can do at home, versatile and useful for making many different kinds of breads.
“Are you going to make it from scratch?” Packauskas asked.
While she has baked for years, Drabkin started selling her bread six years ago, at first at the Downtown Hays Market every Saturday during the summers. As customers wanted the bread year-round, she hit on the idea of an in-home, online bread service.
Now she takes orders through Tuesday morning, bakes on Fridays and customers pick up at her house Friday afternoon. She makes everything from the savory to the sweet, crusty artisan breads, from baguettes and sourdoughs, to rye breads, braided egg breads and croissants, as well as fine-crafted tarts, pies and cakes.
“I’m sure some of us have bread from the grocery store that we thought tasted, if not like Kleenex, maybe like cardboard, and that is just a crying shame, because for heaven’s sake we live in the middle of wheat fields,” Drabkin said. “This is Kansas. First, we ought to be eating amazingly delicious bread. Second, it should be fresh, there should not be ingredients listed on our labels that are unpronounceable chemicals, and ideally it should be made with local ingredients, which we have access to.”
The basic artisan bread Drabkin stirred up Thursday evening is the foundation for everything from baguettes, pizza, pita bread and raisin-walnut wheat loaf, to focaccia, garlic bread, jalapeño-cheddar loaf and seeded wheat loaf.
“It is a lean dough, so it has four ingredients, flour, water, salt and yeast,” she said. “It develops its flavor in the fridge.”
A very forgiving recipe, it’s a very wet dough, with lots of water in comparison to the amount of flour, and it’s handled differently from a stiff dough, she said.
“It’s more of a hands-off kind of dough,” Drabkin said. “You mix, stretch and fold, throw it in the fridge overnight, and the next day whack off a piece and shape it into whatever kind of bread you want to make.”
The key is a longer fermentation, so the longer and slower it’s allowed to ferment, the more gluten develops and the more flavor it has.
In her business, Drabkin uses Heartland Mill organic flour from Marienthal, but others, like King Arthur’s unbleached bread flour, with 12.7% protein, or Hudson Cream, will also do. Higher-protein flours require more water than a cake flour.
Drabkin recommends a higher-content bread flour with 11.5% to 12.5% protein content. All-purpose bleached flour is lower in protein, making it more difficult for the gluten to develop, she explained.
Nothing is exact, and mixing dough on a rainy day can require less water than mixing on a dry day.
Drabkin uses Saf-instant yeast. Active dry yeast is OK, too, but she cautions against rapid rise.
“Yeast works on the complex carbohydrates, breaking them down into simple sugars. There will be some action by bacteria naturally in the flour that will increase various organic acids and compounds,” Drabkin explained, “it does allow for some really fabulous tasting bread for very little work.”
Rather than knead this dough, she folds it on itself, covers it, then lets it rest for 15 minutes, repeating that process several times.
“You might repeat that three or four times, until the dough develops a strength and it feels sort of muscular,” she said. “At that point you can put it in the refrigerator overnight.”
The dough has a lifespan of about three days in the fridge.
“That’s the beauty of making this,” Drabkin said, offering her students samples of the breads she makes, “you can make it and have fresh bread for several days in a row.”
Drabkin will be at the library again on April 25 as part of an Herb Day presentation on using herbs in bread.